Tim Landwehr - Makings of a Fly Shop Owner

Interview and Photo by: Bob Haase.


We are fortunate here in Wisconsin to have a number of good fly shops. It is nice to be able to go into a shop and look and feel the tying materials before purchasing them. Most of these shops have knowledgeable staff who you can talk to about fly tying and fly fishing, and even get fishing reports.


Tightlines Fly Fishing Company in DePere has one of the best shops in the state. Tim Landwehr and his staff do a great job serving the needs of area tiers and fly fishers. They have a great selection of materials and provide guide service on Wisconsin waters, and even sponsor trips to destinations all over the world. The shop also holds fly-fishing classes for those who want to learn the art of tying flies and they can help with any tying problems you might have. When you’re in the area, stop in and say hello. They usually have a pot of coffee going, and really make you feel at home. You can’t get that online.


Tim… how long have you been tying flies and how did you first get started?

I started tying flies when I was around nine years old. My dad had an old Mepps spinner-making kit and I went down in the basement and started tying feathers and hair on the hooks. I never had any formal instructions and kind of learned on my own. Fast forward to about six years ago and I for some reason remembered the smell of that spinner-making kit, the smell of the laquer, the memories of how I got started, and how things have changed over time. Fly-tying kits don’t always have the best tools, or the materials we need the most, but they got a lot of us started tying.


What do you remember about your first experiences tying flies?

I tried to tie flies from memory and patterns that I had seen, and basically started lashing thread onto a hook. The only tip that I remember getting from my dad was to use varnish to coat the heads to make them more durable. They were kind of archaic. I remember as a kid walking to the DePere library, and found a Jack Dennis’s original fly-tying book. I just poured through that trying to get as much information as I could.


Do you recall some of the first patterns you started tying?

I started tying streamer patterns using some of the feathers that were available in that kit. I do remember, and can visually see it in my head, the first dry fly that I ever tied. It was an Adams Irresistible that I found in the Jack Dennis book, which was probably not a good choice for learning to tie my first dry fly. I had to learn how to spin deer hair and wrap hackle in order to tie that fly.


What are some of the things that have changed since you first started tying flies?

Things have changed so much in the 40-some years that I have tied. I learned how to make a whip finish from a two-dimentional photo, and I think it took me weeks to learn how to do it. There wasn’t anybody to help you learn at that time. Now with the video era, YouTube, and the apps that are available, it makes it a lot easier to learn things like that. Now is the best time to learn how to tie flies because of the information available and the quality of the materials. I think it took me four feathers to tie that first Adams because of the short, poor quality feathers.


Were there any particular tiers who you learned from?

My cousin Bart and I learned to fly fish together and I think we learned how to tie flies before we learned how to fly fish, and basically learned on our own. I didn’t have anybody to go to for help. There weren’t these clubs, these groups, TU youth programs or other resources like we have today.

Some of the guys that I emulated were those who wrote books like Jack Dennis and Dave Whitlock. s I got older and in to my late teens, I became friends with some of the old Hornberg group like Jack Holewinsky, Don Larmouth, Gary Gillis, and Jim Hauer, and they welcomed me at the meetings and kept that fire going. Two of them are working for me today.


You operate a retail fly shop in DePere and you also have an online presence. How has this helped you keep up with all the changes in fly tying materials and techniques?

Owning the fly shop has given me insight into all the new fabrics and synthetics, and the improved quality of some of the natural materials such as the dying processes that are used today. It is a very good time to be a fly tier.

We have a big online presence, but you can’t beat being able to walk into a fly shop, see and handle maybe six different packs of materials, and select what you feel is the best one. When a person can see and handle all the different tying materials, then evaluate them as they tie with them, it helps them better understand the differences and what to look for when selecting fly-tying materials. Selecting materials and understanding densities of materials is really challenging and something you learn over time.

Another advantage of being able to walk into a retail shop is being able to talk to someone that is an experienced tier and can help with selection of materials and tying problems, and teach them additional tying techiques. A huge portion of our customers now are conventional anglers who come in and are tying bucktail streamers, marabou jigs or musky/pike flies. Many of them have not had any formal training and we can sit down with them at our tying station and help them learn how to use the right threads and materials, use the right knots or other tying techniques.


Were there any books, videos or other resources that helped you become a better tier?

A lot of the books that I purchased when I first started to tie were English soft hackle and wet fly books, which were great but did not have a lot of Americanized crossover. It was neat stuff, but I think Jack Dennis’s book helped me more than anything at the time. There was not much available then compared to all the books and other resources we have today.


Many tiers develop a preference for particular styles or kind of flies. What are some of your favorite styles or patterns of flies to tie?

Like many tiers everything was a trout fly for me or a bastardized panfish pattern from a trout fly. What I really enjoy tying now, just because I like the diversion, is tying saltwater flies. It is just so out of the box compared to what I normally tie. I have an international travel business so I get to travel all over the world fishing both fresh and salt water. It is kind of fun to crack open a beer, sit at the vise and tie something that you never would tie otherwise.

I burned myself out on trout flies because I was tying out of necessity. I am fishing with a client tomorrow so I need another dozen of these flies. There is a difference between being able to tie creatively the flies you want, compared to tying quantities of the same fly. I did one production order in my entire life when I was 17 years old. It was for 12 dozen size 16 Royal Wulff’s and I painfully got through that order, received my payment and that was it.


Why do you tie your own flies rather than just going out and buying them?

There’s nothing better than catching something on your own creation. It is something like our sport of fly fishing, traditional bowhunting or many other sports where you emerge yourself in the deepness of the sport. Fly tying allows you to come into that realm. Not only do you present the fly on a more challenging tool, but you actually create the bait/fly to trick the fish.

I think the ability to tie your own fly and have an understanding of how it floats, how it sits on the water and how it absorbs water helps you understand the characteristics of a fly. It forces you to become a half-assed entomologist because you will develop an understanding of the mayfly, the caddis fly. It forces you into learning more about the bugs. Tying makes you a far better angler.

As I get older, my eyes are not what they used to be when I was 20, so I can put a hot spot on them so that I can see them easier when I am fishing them. All my blue wing olive patterns are tied with a parachute style of post so that I can see a #20 or #22. By tying your own flies you can create exactly what you want.


Tim, you have an online business as well as a retail business. How has that affected sales and the way you do business?

We live in an Amazon world now, and that is how many people buy their stuff. The fly-fishing business has become a lot harder in the last eight years and has become much harder than it has ever been.

We sell a lot of stuff online, but it still only represents about 15 percent of our business. People still want to come in and touch and feel the products, and talk to me or our staff about the products.

Social media is far more important than the online presence and is a whole different animal. Your perception of a shop and its employees digitally is based on what you see and what their marketing is. It is not a reality of who they are and what they do. It is a facade.

If you walk into a fly shop you quickly learn and understand the personality of the shop, what the shop is. You can’t get that online. You can’t smell it, touch it, taste it, and it is still one of my favorite places to go into, even though I own one.

You provide a guide service and spend a lot of time on the water. How does the time on the water help you at the tying bench?

You can sit at the tying bench and be creative in your own head without the practical experience of what you learn on the stream, and think in your own mind what should work and would work. A perfect example would be Charlie’s fly, the old Mister Wiggly. We have a whole chapter on it in our book, “Smallmouth – Modern Fly Fishing Methods, Tactics, and Techniques.” The Wiggly style of flies are now a category of flies because they enter the water quieter and are something completely different than anything else.

That fly was developed from the river, in what we needed from the river, and then developed at the vise. We knew what we needed to do and what we needed to achieve because of the time we spent on the water. We could go back, sit around as a group at the tying table, have a beer, BS a little, brainstorm and come up with the fly that was needed.


What are some of the major changes you have seen in fly tying and fly tying materials over the years?

Although materials have changed, there haven’t been huge changes the last 10 years. Dahlberg Divers have been a game changer because of the style of the head, the sound that the Dahlberg Diver makes, and there have been a lot of variations and changes based on that.

More recently one of the biggest change has been those by a very innovative tier, Blane Chocklett. Blane Chocklett came out with the true “Game Changer” style of patterns. The Game Changer uses multiple shanks that has a different swim profile and has transitioned into musky flies and small streamer patterns. That is one of the biggest fly pattern changes in the last 10 years.


Do you have any tips for someone just getting started in fly tying?

Start assembling your kit of fly tying tools and materials by picking six or seven different patterns that you are interesting in tying. Buy the materials for those and learn to tie those well, and then expand your kit as you add fly patterns that you want to tie.

Some clubs are more active now than I have ever seen before with youth tying programs, and other related programs. Get involved with these clubs and Trout Unlimited chapters. We have seen a different camaraderie in the last 10 or 15 years and I have watched the Green Bay, Central Wisconsin and Fox Valley chapters just explode into a group of friends that share so much information. Get involved in those groups.

Take a basic tying class to learn the fundamentals. Purchase a good vise and materials, and once a class is over, keep practicing and work at perfecting your tying skills. The more you tie, the better you will become at tying flies.


Are there any people who you have met over the years, either through fly tying or fly fishing, who kind of stand out and have become good friends?

I think about my whole life in general. I worked in a bank for a few years, and moved to Montana and lived in a tent for about a year. I met my wife out there, my kids came, and because of this whole circle we opened the fly shop here.

Some of my bests friends guide for me and my entire life is wrapped around a circle of people I have met because of this sport. It becomes a family.

The whole old Mr. Wiggly fly phenomenon with that smallmouth thing happened because of a guy, Jack Allen, who passed away a few years ago. Jack was one of Dave Whitlock’s best friends and he was the guy who brought that style of fishing to the Menominee River with us. That changed the face of smallmouth fishing, not just in northeastern Wisconsin, but in the country.

There are so many things that have been touched by people and the sport. My whole life revolves around the silly sport of a plastic string and a graphite fly rod.

In the sport of fly tying and fly fishing, you meet very passionate people. Because they are so passionate about the sport of fly fishing and all the facets of it, you find very like-minded people. The common denominator is that you just become friends instantaneously, and you don’t just become an acquaintance, you become good friends.


You have the opportunity to fish all over the world. How well do flies that work here in Wisconsin work in other states and countries?

Absolutely, there are a ton of crossovers. In the trout world, for the most part, bugs are bugs, and we have similar hatches. What makes certain patterns popular in one area isn’t necessarily that the pattern works so well, but rather it becomes a traditional pattern for that area.

A perfect example of that is John Bethke’s Pink Squirrel. The Pink Squirrel works all over the place, but its roots are in the Spring Creek area of Southwest Wisconsin.

I just got back from Patagonia and the pattern that worked best there is Andrew Grillos Hippy Stomper, which is a basic attractor pattern that works just as well here as it does in other places.

As we get into different species of fish that we don’t have here, you have patterns that work better for that species, in that area. You may want to absorb the culture of the area you are fishing because that is part of the fun part of the sport.


We are often told to “match the hatch,” but flies that don’t match the hatch often work very well. What is your opinion on tying and fishing flies that match the hatch?

Look at the popularity of foam-style flies used in Jackson Hole’s “One Fly” tournament, such as the Chernobyl ant. Other than large stoneflies, the Chernobyl ant looks like nothing in nature, and yet it catches fish all over the place.

The Purple Peril and Purple Haze dry flies, the purple dry flies are the same thing. There are not many purple mayflies in nature.

We give trout an awful lot of credit, but as long as you stick with the insect’s profile and prey a little on their curiosity, that works too. If we look at the attractor patterns we fish now, they often do not look anything like the real thing.


Do you think trout become conditioned to a particular fly pattern?

A lot of those streams that are heavily pressured, such as the Big Horn River in Montana, can see on a Saturday 300 river boats on 13 miles of stream. Many of those fish have been caught over and over again and I know that their brain is itty-bitty, but they do learn and become conditioned.

I’ve watched those feeding behaviors where things are good but the fish refuse, deny, deny, look at it, and then refuse. You change to a different fly and then maybe catch one. I just like figuring out on my own and I guess I don’t care as much if I’m catching fish and nobody else is. That doesn’t bother me either way. I like the idea of fishing the fish and just the satisfaction of “I got ‘em to bite.”

The guys who think they can crack the “code” are mislead. Maybe they did for that hour or that run, but that is why we keep getting sucked back into it, because that is the fun part of it.

We never want to fully crack the code. The biggest tragedy of our entire sport would be cracking the code, because then we would be just “fish catching” and not actually going “fishing.”

The act of fishing, and the small little pieces of frustration that come along with it, is what keeps us involved.

The best part of the sport, and I have buried my life in it for an awful long time, is that you will never be a complete angler.

You may become a well rounded fisherman, but when we think we know we got it figured out, we are misleading ourselves. If you are into this sport and into life-long learning, want to meet wonderful people, get these cool little episodes in your lifetime where you crack the code for that day, then it is the right sport for you.


If you had to fish one fly for the rest of your life, what fly would it be?

That is a loaded question, because one fly might catch more fish, but another fly might be more fun to fish, so I am going to give you two answers.

If I had to use one fly to catch fish all the time it would probably be an Elk Hair Caddis variation. This is because I can skitter it, I can dive it, it can be dragged, and it is my most effective searching dry fly, period.

For fun it would be a size #18 BWO parachute of some nature because I love fishing riffle fish that are feeding on olives.


Is there anything else that you would like to add to what we talked about so far?

Fly fishing and fly tying is one of those sports that I am just lucky to have been around, and the fly shop has been such a cool thing because of the people that I have met. It is not like any other job in that everyone is happy to come in. It is such a cool life style that has allowed me to meet so many wonderful people and travel all over the world fishing.